Welcome to my fourth attempt at The Pilot Project. The concept is simple – I watch the pilot episode of every new network show and tell you what I think about each one. Following each write-up, I’ll offer a recommendation using the following, highly self-explanatory scale:
– Pretty Good
– Has Potential
– No Thanks
Most shows will fall in the range of “Pretty Good” to “No Thanks”, but maybe we’ll get a surprise here or there. Let the Project commence!
Forever – I went into this series expecting absolutely nothing from it. I mean, really, there’s nothing here that hasn’t already been done before, both in TV, film, and literature. Maybe that explains why I was so pleasantly surprised. Forever isn’t a bad show you guys. Forever also isn’t a great show. But that’s neither here nor there, because it exceeded all of my expectations.
First, a confession. While this feature is meant to be focused on just the pilots of each new series, Forever aired new episodes on back-to-back nights, so I have in fact seen the first two episodes. SO SUE ME! Okay, I suppose I should let you know what it’s about. I’m not great about that, am I? Basically, Ioan Gruffudd plays Dr. Henry Morgan, a medical examiner who doesn’t die. Whenever he is “killed”, he awakens, fully naked, in a nearby body of water. No explanation is given as to how or why this is the case, it just is. The interesting thing is that since he has “died” so many times and in so many ways, he’s an absolutely brilliant medical examiner. He’s seen it all. He’s experienced it all. So when Detective Jo Martinez comes to him for help, he’s happy to oblige. There’s a very “Sherlock-ian” quality to the entire thing – an attractive British man is uncannily good at solving crimes. He’s able to notice things about people and bodies that no one else does, which of course makes him invaluable to Detective Martinez. Of course, everyone else on the police force thinks that Henry is crazy. It’s all very by the book. There’s very little here that can be called original.
What makes the entire affair so much fun, however, is Gruffudd himself. I’ve never paid much attention to the man’s work prior to this, but I he was okay in the Fantastic Four movies, even though they were absolutely abominable. I think those movies tarnished my image of Gruffudd. He’s really great here though. He’s got more than enough charm and charisma to stand up alongside the Castle’s, Booth’s, and Sherlock’s of network television. Gruffudd plays well off of Judd Hirsch, who plays an old friend of Morgan’s who knows his secret and Gruffudd’s got good chemistry with Alana De La Garza, a procedural veteran who plays Detective Martinez. The cases are interesting and there’s enough of an overarching mythology here involving both flashbacks and a mysterious second immortal to keep me interested long-term.
A lot of outlets have been making jokes along the lines of “Forever will be anything but”, but I, for one, hope it sticks around for at least a little while.
Recommendation: Has Potential
Gotham – A show with the title Gotham has a lot to live up to. There are, of course, the expectations that come along with being associated with a character as influential as Batman and the inevitable comparisons to the comics, the movies, and the animated series, but all that aside, there is the fact that a show called Gotham better deliver on its name. The best Batman stories portray Gotham as as much a character as Batman himself, brimming with personality. The best thing I can say about Fox’s Gotham is that it looks like they nailed this aspect of the Batman mythos.
The titular Gotham City is downright gorgeous, a grim, smoky, neon cityscape that combines the best aspects of Burton’s, Schumacher’s, and Nolan’s portrayals. Burton’s Gotham was a dark, gothic nightmare, a stark contrast to Schumacher’s outlandish neon dreamscape. Nolan took the grounded approach, shunning both the gothic and camp characterizations for a more realistic setting. Gotham builds on the city that Nolan built by sprinkling in bits of Burton and Schumacher, adding more character while still allowing Gotham to be a real, believable place. There is a tangible quality to this Gotham – it’s a grimy, dirty pit of corruption, shrouded in mystery, visible at times only through a colorful neon filter, a description that can also be applied to the cast of characters assembled to populate this cesspool.
The cast here is solid, led by the dependable Benjamin Mackenzie (The O.C.) and Donal Logue (the criminally unwatched Terriers). They are, respectively, Detectives James Gordon and Harvey Bullock, two names that will be familiar to anyone who grew up reading Batman comics or watching The Animated Series. Mackenzie is a good fit for Gordon, who needs to exhibit a degree of toughness and street smarts while maintaining a heart of gold. While Mackenzie is obviously the focus, it’s Logue who is the most fun to watch. Bullock is fairly one dimensional at the start of the episode, a corrupt cop who’d rather not rock the boat, but as things progress, we see that there’s more to him than just a morally bankrupt detective – even crooked cops have a code. The other notable casting standout is Jada Pinkett Smith, who’s seems to relish playing the villainous Fish Mooney. Mooney is a character that beautifully straddles the line between grit and camp, who seems as if she could exist on either end of the spectrum. I’m interested to see how the relationship between Gordon, Bullock, and Mooney plays out over the course of the series.
So Gotham is off to a solid start, right? It’s got a solid cast and it’s nailed the aesthetic – we’ve got a winner on our hands. Not so fast. I came into Gotham’s pilot with a lot of trepidation. Fox has been airing promos for the show since May and it’s clear that they’re banking on this thing being a huge hit. It reminds me of the situation ABC was in a year ago when they premiered Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – they had a high profile comic book project that came pre-packaged with a million expectations. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has improved by leaps and bounds since the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for the first three quarters of its run, the show was a huge letdown for many, ABC included. It took a long time for the show to find it’s legs and it was hurt by all of the hype. It would appear that Gotham is in a similar situation. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was hurt by comparisons to the cinematic universe it could never hope to compete with. Gotham, on the other hand, is going to be hurt by the expectations that this is a Batman show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recovered because the writers behind it knew from the get go that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had to be its own thing in order to work – it needed to tread ground not covered by the movies. Bruno Heller, the man behind Gotham, hasn’t seemed to figure this lesson out yet.
Gotham is not Batman: The Series, and yet the episode opens with a young Catwoman witnessing the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. It’s a number of minutes into the episode before we are introduced to Gordon and Bullock, which isn’t the problem – most procedurals have a cold open featuring unknown characters who become victims of a crime. The problem is that the characters featured in Gotham’s cold open aren’t random or unknown – they are Catwoman and Batman. Despite assurances from Heller that this is the story of Gordon and Gotham, we are having Batman shoved down our throats from the opening seconds, and it only gets worse as the show goes on. Look, it’s the Riddler! Look, it’s the Penguin! Look, it’s Poison Ivy! It’s not subtle. These are not winks or nods, they are punches to the face. If it’s a Batman show, they should have made it a Batman show. If it’s not a Batman show then they need to stop trying so hard to make it one. There is a tonal inconsistency here, and I’m worried it’s only going to get worse, considering Heller’s plans to include every Batman villain under the sun, from the Joker and Scarecrow to Two-Face and Mr. Freeze. This is problematic, as is Gotham’s very premise.
Gotham is, presumably, a show about the decay of Gotham City. It is a show featuring a Gotham that is slowly (or quickly) descending into chaos and the one good cop who is looking to stop that from happening. Assuming that Gotham is successful, we’ll see this struggle play out for a number of years, with more and more villains introduced, furthering the corruption of the city. Here’s the problem: Gordon can’t win. At the end of the day, Gordon will always have to lose. It will most likely take the form of “one step forward, two steps back”, but no real progress can ever be made in slowing Gotham’s descent into hell, because where would that leave Bruce Wayne? In order for Batman to be a necessity, Gotham has to be in a bad, bad place by the series’ end. Gordon can have small victories – he can incarcerate villains and clean up the streets – but those villains will always return and the waves of crime will always sweep back in, eliminating all of that good work. If the show plays out in the trajectory I’m expecting, we’re just going to be witnessing a losing battle for Gotham’s soul over the course of however many years Gotham remains on the air. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s certainly a story to be told about the futility of the battle between good and evil and perseverance in the face of defeat, but I’m not convinced yet that that’s necessarily the story that Gotham is trying to tell.
That’s just one of the many legitimate concerns I have about Gotham (we won’t even get into the theory that Batman is a part of the problem, escalating the crime and madness that he is trying to stop, a theory which Gotham’s very existence seems to disprove). I really want to like this show, but I wish I was watching a show based on Gotham Central, a comic book series written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, two of the best modern crime writers in comics (Brubaker was responsible for creating the Winter Soldier, a character you made have heard of recently). If the idea of Gotham interests you, you owe it to yourself to check out this series which featured a Gotham City PD that exists in the shadow of the Batman. This would have worked so much better as a TV series. You could have kept all of the same characters, only now you could actually use Batman’s villains without the worry that they’d develop too much before Batman shows up on the scene. Gotham Central isn’t a story about Batman as much as it is about the effect of Batman. He’s rarely ever used in the series, but his presence is felt constantly. If you want to make a television show set in the world of Gotham City without actually using Batman, that’s the way you do it. Part of me wonders if this wasn’t the original intention behind Gotham before it got focus grouped to death. I can see people having a real issue with a Batman show sans Batman in the same way that people were frustrated that Iron Man wasn’t going to show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. People eventually got over that, however, and I’m hoping that Bruno Heller and company can eventually get over the issues plaguing Gotham and pull it together in a satisfactory way. I’ll continue to have my doubts.
Recommendation: Has Potential
Scorpion – Scorpion falls into the broadly defined “Internet as Magic” genre, in which the internet is, effectively, treated as a magic cure-all, a dues ex machine that can solve any problem, no matter how complex. Another recent example of such as show was CBS’ short-lived Josh Holloway vehicle, Intelligence. In the show, Holloway played an intelligence operative who had a microchip inside of his brain, allowing him wireless access to the internet at all times. The show made absolutely no sense whatsoever. The chip and the character’s brain worked in conjunction to do things that nobody anticipated the possibility of, such as reconstructing crime scenes in the mind using all of the evidence provided, allowing Holloway’s character to effectively experience the event as it happened. Despite this, what Holloway’s character most often used the chip for were simple internet searches. No explanation was ever provided as to why most of the things he could do with the chip, someone on a laptop or a smartphone couldn’t perform just as easily, but that’s beside the point because, as CBS would love for you to believe, the internet is magic, and you can solve every problem just by giving a government agent unlimited WiFi.
Scorpion is a lot like that. The premise is loosely based on the real life “Scorpion”, self-proclaimed genius Walter O’Brien. I say loosely because, as this and many other articles attest, most of O’Brien’s claims seem to be, at best, greatly exaggerated. Who is the real Walter O’Brien? Is he really a genius? Does it really matter? No, not really. Scorpion follows O’Brien and a group of socially outcast geniuses who help out the Department of Homeland Security with problems that people of “regular” intellect can’t solve. The team is recruited by an agent played by Robert Patrick, and Robert Patrick is great. The rest of the team consists of O’Brien, the genius computer security expert, Toby Curtis, the brilliant behaviorist, Happy Quinn, a master mechanical engineer, and Sylvester Dodd, a statistical guru. Together, with help from the internet, they can do literally anything. Oh, and there’s also Paige Dineen, a waitress played by Katherine McPhee who effectively serves as, no joke, the group’s mother. You see, she has a child who is a genius, and she needs O’Brien and the others to help her understand her son. On the flip side, O’Brien and his team need a “normal person” who knows how to deal with geniuses to help them “interpret the world”. Dineen is perfect for this, because she does this for her son every day. It’s all super convenient and great.
Well, it’s not great actually, but at least it’s slightly original. We already have enough shows about different kinds of cops, lawyers, and doctors, and while there are also plenty of shows focusing on high-functioning individuals, there aren’t many that have them doing things apart from solving crimes. Scorpion seems to be taking a difference approach, in which the team is tasked with solving different crises every week. I’m sure that at some point, the show will crossover into the realm of the crime drama, but this first episode focused on a software malfunction at an airport that was preventing dozens of aircraft from landing safely. Was there “hacking”? Yes. Was it ridiculous? Yes. Was it filled with plot holes? Yes. Was it original? Yes. Was it fun? Yes, thanks in large part to Justin Lin, who you may known as the director behind such films as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, Fast Five, and Fast & Furious 6. Did this episode feature someone driving a sports car dangerously through heavy traffic? Yes it did. Did this episode feature said sports car speeding down an airport runway while a plane came down on top of it? Yes it did. Did this episode feature Katherine McPhee, in the passenger’s seat of said speeding sports car, reaching up to hook a laptop up to an Ethernet cable that was being dangled from the landing gear of said plane by a very brave co-pilot? YES IT DID. It was the dumbest thing ever and I loved every second of it (I have a very high tolerance for dumb nonsense).
The longevity of this show will depend solely on how interesting the weekly cases are and whether or not they feature ridiculous, dumb, fun set pieces like the one above. Justin Lin won’t be around every week to shepherd these action sequences, but as long as the spirit remains the same, CBS will probably have another hit on its hands. Your mileage may vary.
Recommendation: Meh/Has Potential
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Up Next: NCIS: New Orleans, Black-ish, How To Get Away With Murder